A Paws-itive Sign
Sierra Renner and her fiancé Garrett Goering have three “fur-babies,” with two being deaf. In an effort to communicate with them, the couple uses sign language.
While a student at Peru State College in 2017, Sierra Renner turned a tragic experience into a paws-itive one, when she adopted her special needs pup, Huxley.
“I was working in Peru, Neb., and a customer [Sara Pruitt] mentioned she had a very special pup who she was looking for a home for,” Sierra said. “I had no intention of getting a dog at this time, and I was a resident’s assistant for the girls dormitory — which is still my favorite job to date — so I brushed off the possibility.”
“Our campus had just faced tragedy of losing a student by suicide, and a lot of our residents were trying to cope with this loss, myself included. I couldn’t get the pup out of my mind. I talked to my doctor and campus counselor, and found out I could get Huxley as an Emotional Support Animal [ESA]. That is exactly what I did, and he provided lots of joy to our dormitory! I know it’s cliché, but Hux [Huxley] certainly saved my life/mind at that point in time.”
Huxley — who is a double merle Australian Shepherd — was born on Oct. 31, 2017, and is deaf. Sierra brought Huxley home just before Christmas in 2017.
With a new challenge of communicating with Huxley, Sierra channeled her grief and went down a rabbit hole to learn and teach sign language to Huxley.
“I believe the focus of training him and learning how to communicate with him was very healing through the tough time,” Sierra said. “I had no intent of adopting a special needs dog, nor did I seek the opportunity out. It just happened. It’s been one of the most rewarding/fulfilling.”
A Growing Family
Over a five year period, the family grew to include three dogs, two deaf and one working dog.
On March 6, 2019, the Henry family in Wetmore had a litter of Border Collie pups, who were looking for their fur-ever homes. Therefore, Garrett and Sierra went to look at the litter.
“They were all so cute,” Sierra said. “The Henry family said, ‘If no one is looking to adopt that one, we thought about keeping him.’ Garrett immediately indicated that he wanted the one in reference, which is how we ended up with Ax [Axel]! The parents of this litter were very intelligent working cattle dogs, so that was very important to Garrett to find a skilled working dog.”
Garrett and Sierra were able to officially bring Ax home in May of 2019.
Roux — a double merle Mini Australian Shepherd — was born on Aug. 28, 2022, and is deaf.
“My aunt Kylie lives in Norfolk, Neb., and she tagged me in a post on the Animal Shelter of Northeast Nebraska’s Facebook page,” Sierra said. “It was a photo of a Mini Aussie at the shelter, and the post explained that she was deaf. Garrett and I mulled over the thought of a third dog, and wanted to be sure we had the time/space/energy for this. I applied for adoption, and we scheduled a meet and greet for Ax and Hux to meet her.
“When I arrived at the shelter, she was waiting in the lobby with a ‘hold’ sticker on the outside of the crate. Other people were looking at her when I arrived, but she was really eyeballing me while I was waiting my turn. I knew she belonged in our family right away!”
Sierra and Garrett brought home Roux in February 2023. Since adopting her, Sierra has connected with her original owners from Norfolk, Neb.
Learning the asl language
While Sierra was growing up, her family didn’t practice sign language at home, but at school and as she got older — in certain working environments — sign language was present.
“I was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, so my speech has somewhat been impacted by this,” Sierra said. “In previous work, it was tricky for hearing impaired clients to read my lips due to the birth defect – I had to learn American Sign Language [ASL] to be able to communicate effectively. I used a translation app at first, and then began watching videos and checked out ASL books from the library. I cannot communicate fluently with ASL, nor have I received accredited training, but I am very familiar with general terms and now, more dog-command like terms.”
As for commands, Sierra said the dogs know “sit,” “stay,” “lay down,” “come here,” “car,” “mail,” “potty,” “no,” “good dog,” “mom/dad’s home,” “all gone,” “food” and “water.”
“I am sure there are more that I am overlooking,” Sierra said.
Since he was the only fur-baby at the time, Sierra said Huxley learned really quickly and is excellent with his commands.
“I am still teaching Roux, but she has taken well to the lingo,” Sierra said. “Huxley had the opportunity to learn one-on-one and Roux has two others around while she is learning, so her puppy brain gets distracted more often than I ever remember with Huxley.”
Sierra said that they “speak and sign” concurrently with all of their dogs.
“Axel, despite being able to hear, knows the signs,” Sierra said. “I am certain our non-hearing pups can sense our tone and vibrations of our voice, so we will forever speak to our deaf dogs! We never intentionally taught Ax the signs, but he knows them as we speak alongside the command. We can give a quick sign without speaking, and they will each obey the command with or without any verbal commands.”
Sierra said, in terms of having a deaf dog, there is really no difference on the dog’s part.
“Dogs respond primarily to human movement rather than vocal commands anyway,” Sierra said. “The largest difference we have experienced personally is the fact that our Aussies would not be great livestock dogs. Garrett has always grown up with working dogs, and that is something we have not explored with Huxley or Roux. I worry their lack of hearing could put them in danger working with cattle.”
The other difficulty with having a deaf dogs is when they “gain focus on something or start walking the opposite way,” you can’t get their attention.
“You cannot get their attention if they aren’t looking at you, so either you go after them or wait until they look back at you so you can sign,” Sierra said. “People joke after learning they [Huxley and Roux] are deaf, and say they have had a deaf dog once their dog lost their hearing of old age. True, but it doesn’t even seem comparable.
“Having had hearing impaired dogs due to old age versus Huxley and Roux who have never heard in their life, there truly is a difference. Being a double merle, there are chances that the pups could be deaf or blind. I feel very fortunate that our pups can see the world, and all of their toys, etc. I only get a bit sad when I remember that they cannot hear good music or our voices. I know they can feel it though!”
The Pup’s Personalities
Huxley is a mama’s boy and absolutely loves car rides.
“He enjoys other people, but is not fond of other dogs that are not in our immediate friends/family group,” Sierra said. “Axel is a ‘dad’s dog.’ We call him a bad-Ax. Lol. He will play frisbee for hours on end, and will only play with Dollar General frisbees. He turns his nose up at literally any others! He loves going to work with dad/Garrett. He is very protective of our family, and I believe he can sense that the other pups cannot hear. He is always on-guard and will let us know of any odd sounds/movement that he hears.”
Roux, who is almost one, is the tiniest dog either Garrett or Sierra have ever had.
“She is the tie breaker,” Sierra said. “I would say she leans towards being a mama’s gal, but she could be swayed either way depending on who is willing to give belly scratches!”
Roux just had a “paw-rty to celebrate” her first birthday.
Sierra said the family is “well-known” for dressing the pups up for Halloween.
“It is my favorite holiday, and a coincidence that Huxley was born on this date,” Sierra said. “We have made the costumes and dressed them for the last three years, including Garrett’s childhood dog, Trey, who is a Border Collie. The first year, we did Wizard of Oz, then Scooby Doo; Garrett and I dressed up too for this one. Last year was Hocus Pocus. This year is to be determined, but it’ll be Roux’s first Halloween with us!”
About Sierra and Garrett
Sierra grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and graduated from Lincoln Southeast High School in 2015. She attended Peru State College and studied Psychology and Criminal Justice and graduated with her bachelors in 2019. Then, she pursued graduate school online through Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb., where she studied Industrial and Organizational (IO) Psychology and graduated with her masters in 2021.
Throughout her schooling, Sierra interned at a vocational rehabilitation center for the Intellectual and Developmentally Disabled (IDD) population.
“I gained further working experience with roles in the IDD realm which is where my heart lies,” Sierra said. “I then worked my way into a Human Resources role, which aligned well with my masters degree. Near the end of my masters program, I applied for the Human Resources Director role at Kanza Mental Health and Guidance Center. I value working for a Community Mental Health Center, and find it very rewarding. I have since been promoted to the Director of Operations, and I am thrilled to be onboard the team as we are preparing to shift to a new care model. I love what I do and can appreciate the culture shift that Kanza MHGC is actively experiencing.”
Garrett is from Moundridge, Kan., and attended Norfolk Community College in Norfolk, Neb. Sierra and Garrett met in late 2017. While helping his parents move to Seneca in 2016 or early 2017, Garrett met Andy Evans with Rocking E Cattle Co. In November 2017, Garrett decided to relocate to Seneca to work for Evans as Yard Manager. Garrett also works independently doing farm welding repair and fabrication.
“We both value work immensely,” Sierra said.
In January 2019, Sierra moved to the area and they quickly decided they wanted to buy a house.
“We found our current starter home in Fairview, moved in August 2019,” Sierra said.
Garrett and Sierra are “officially tying the knot” in September 2023. They also enjoy going to El Canelo in Sabetha where they “shamelessly visit weekly for a date night.”
Garrett tinkers on welding projects and restoration of his Dodge pickup in his free time.
Sierra loves going to concerts of all varieties, doing jigsaw puzzles and watching documentaries. She also loves learning, and will “dive down a rabbit hole to learn more about interests or to master a skill set.”
As for helping someone who might need help communicating with their deaf dog, Sierra said she doesn’t have the training but is willing to help anyone who is interested.
“I do not have any specializations or training with this, but I have ample lived experience and self-teaching to carry forward!” Sierra said.